“The Bright Star in the Early
John Wayne may be the first name
that comes to most minds when talking about western movie stars, but even Wayne
himself realized Harry Carey, Sr. to be the true western icon. Mimicking many
of Carey’s trademark moves such as the slouching posture he had while riding,
Wayne has been quoted as saying that Carey “was the greatest Western actor of
all time.” The Duke’s admiration of Carey can be seen as he ends a film in
Carey style, walking away with his left arm held in his right.
Seemingly born of the west and
raised in the gritty style of his characters, in actuality Carey couldn’t have been born
further away. He was born on January 16, 1878 in the Bronx, NY to a
New York City judge who also served as the president of a sewing machine
company. Working his way through Hamilton Military Academy, Henry DeWitt Carey
II declined an appointment to West Point to study law at New York University.
His pursuit was cut short after a bout of pneumonia, which he contracted after a
boating accident in 1899, pointed him towards his destination as an actor.
During his recovery Carey penned a
play entitled "Montana," which played crowds for nearly three years with great
success. The money he received from his hit was quickly lost on his next play
"Heart of Alaska," which was a box office disappointment. As his attention was
pulled in the direction of acting, he decided to enter into the fast growing
movie industry, and in 1909 he took on his first important movie role in Bill
Sharkey’s "Last Game."
In 1915 Carey finally became a
successful actor by acquiring a contract with Universal Pictures which paid $150
a week. While under contract, he completed a series of westerns playing
Cheyenne Harry and costarring with his future wife, Olive Golden, and his
friend, Hoot Gibson. During this stint he also created the partnership with
director John Ford which would lead him into western stardom. Together, Ford
and Carey would pair up to create twenty-six films with Universal Pictures, the
first one being "Straight Shooting" in 1917.
By 1919 Carey’s salary had
increased to $1,250 a week making him one of the highest paid western stars of
the time. However, his icon status was soon to be threatened by up and
coming trends and stars. The movies began to lean towards “flash and dash”
cowboys, and Carey was known for his “emphasis on realism and grittiness.” He
also was no longer a young star. Frustration with Universal Pictures
climaxed when Hoot Gibson, Carey’s longtime friend, was cast as the studio’s
next leading star in 1922. Carey then left Universal and John Ford.
Carey was still a recognized and
respectable cowboy actor, and he worked to create other films with other studios
such as "The Night Hawk" (1924), "The Prairie Pirate"
(1924), "The Man From Red
Gulch" (1924), and "Satan Town" (1926). Carey also toured the vaudeville circuit
with his second wife, Olive, but found the touring to be tiresome and left.
Reviving his film career to that
which it was before leaving Universal
Pictures was the 1929 lead role in the film "Trader Horn." After filming for
months in Africa and Mexico, the film proved to be valuable in Carey’s career as
well as in his bank account. Riding the wave of the film’s success, Carey went
on to star in "The Vanishing Legion" (1931), "Cavalier of the West" (1931), "Law and
Order" (1932), "Last of the Mohicans" (1932), "The Thundering Herd" (1933),
Trail" (1935), "Powdersmoke Range" (1935), "Ghost Town" (1936), and "The Last
Outlaw" (1936). In the end Carey received top billing when paired with Hoot
Gibson once again, indicating his star status.
Known not only for his western
roles, Carey was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1939 for his
role as President of the Senate in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Although
Thomas Mitchell won the award for his work in Stagecoach, Carey showed that he
had the ability to leave his horse behind and still capture the audience’s
Working in films until his death on September 21, 1947 from a battle with
emphysema and cancer, Carey’s name could be seen in movie credits spanning three
decades. Released in 1948 after his death, the movie "Red River" attempted to
mimic the success of "Gone with the Wind." Failing at this attempt, it did put
both Harry Carey, Sr. and his son Harry Carey, Jr. on the same screen. Carey Jr.
would achieve legendary status on his own as a western actor in later years, but
this film allowed him to display his talents as Dan Latimer alongside his father
who played Mr. Melville.
After Carey’s death John Ford decided to remake his film "Three Bad Men" in which
Harry Carey starred in 1926. The remake was entitled "Three Godfathers," and it
starred Harry Carey Jr. this time around. Opening the film is a shot of a
cowboy’s silhouette in the sun and a dedication to Harry Carey, Sr. The
dedication is to, in Ford’s words, “the bright star of the early western sky.”
Harry Carey, Sr. certainly was a star in the constellation of early western
movies, proving to the be the one which helped later stars find their way.
For more information on Harry Carey and other classic western stars, see:
The Old Corral:
Residing in Pennsylvania, Kelly is a teacher,
a freelance writer, a wife, and a mother. She writes and publishes fiction,
editorial essays, and occasional non-fiction articles. Contact her at